Neanderthals have a branding problem: Early anatomists described them as “a barbarous and savage race,” and a classic paleontology textbook threw epic shade on their skulls, saying they were better suited to “vegetative or bestial functions” rather than to the “mind” that was the secret sauce to humanity’s takeover.
But new research – from a cave deep in France – is rejiggering that take. By the looks of some very epic cave structures, Neanderthals had communication, coordination, and culture that’s tantalizingly humanlike.
As published in the journal Nature, archeologists dated two large ringlike structures made of some 4,000 broken stalagmites. They were big: over 368 feet in total (longer that a football field) with a reported weight of 2.2 tons. Also: There were markings of fire all over the place.
Fancy technology allowed the team, led by University of Bordeaux professor Jacques Jaubert, to date the formation as over 176,000 years old, meaning that the structures predate the arrival of Homo sapiens by a staggering 100,000 years, Nadia Drake reports for National Geographic.
Beyond being more metal than “Enter Sandman,” it’s looking like Neanderthals were smarter than their reputation suggests. “Our results … suggest that the Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominid species,” the authors write in their conclusion. The site lies over 1,000 feet into the cave, requiring a construction-crew mentality: You need continual lighting and group coordination to pull off a project of that scale.
Nobody really knows why neanderthals would build such sweet structures so deep into the Earth’s perilous maw. University of Colorado archeologist Paola Villa tells The Atlantic that it’s plausible the site was “a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” though it will take more research to find out. The rings are in great condition since they were sealed for millennia, until local cavers opened the site in the 1990s. Previous dating suggested the site was over 45,000 years old, but the researcher pursuing that inquiry tragically died of a heart attack while exploring another cave.
With this and other discoveries, Neanderthals are looking less, well, neanderthalic. A 2013 study suggests that since a bone associated with speech in humans looks very similar to those of Neanderthals, they may have had complex language. A cache of fossils in northern Iraq made it look like they buried their dead, and there’s also convincing evidence that Neanderthals were the world’s first artists, painting cave walls in northern Spain.
All this is to say that while Phil Hartman’s Keyrock may have just been a caveman, the science suggests he could have truly been an effective lawyer.